Hello body, Hello Self. Pleased to Meet You!
Healing from chronic fatigue by coming home to embodied presence after a lifetime of absence.
If you close your eyes for a few moments and check-in, what do you notice?
Several years ago (and for most of my life previously), when I did that, there was a raging storm inside my mind and my body. Black roiling clouds of tangled thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations fizzing and crackling with violent energy. I noticed that my body had an almost constant subtle internal tremor. My autonomic nervous system was completely fried, my body-mind was going haywire and the recognition of this was frightening but ultimately transformational.
I realise now that this is a very common experience for many modern people living busy, amped-up lives of disconnection, distraction and stress but back then I thought this was just me, just my body-mind letting me down…again.
I want to share with you the process I have been through and the deep learning I have absorbed along the way in the hopes that, if you too feel that swirling hurricane inside you, and if you feel called to, you can begin a process of reconnection with Self and of profound healing and growth just as I have.
Now when I check inside me, I notice an ever-increasing spacious quietude, a sense of safe groundedness, an inner aliveness and alignment and a slowly softening open-heartedness.
My body and mind now feel like an integrated part of who I am, not enemies to control or defend against and that has changed everything for me. My nervous system is much more regulated, life-long unhelpful core limiting beliefs have loosened their grip over my behaviour and thoughts, and I feel fundamentally whole for the first time I can remember.
I wish this for others as well, and so I have trained and now work as a teacher of embodied meditation and as a transpersonal psychology coach.
This is how I began the process of coming home to my true nature.
Most mindfulness teaches meditation from the neck up.
I had a very long but somewhat on/off relationship with meditation. My mother took me to Transcendental Meditation (TM) classes when I was five years old (I’m 46 now). Throughout my childhood and adolescence, during dark times of distress, I would repeat my mantra in bed at night, trying to sink beneath the surface of my mind, down into the still depths of my inky consciousness. I treated TM like a rescue remedy; first aid for the mind and soul.
In my mid-twenties I attended my first 10-day Buddhist meditation retreat in Nepal with my wife and on return home, we joined a local Tibetan Buddhist group. In Asia, the iconography, incense, and esoteric language felt exciting and inviting but back in the UK, we came to realise that it was just too removed from our own cultural conditioning. It felt like pretending to be a Tibetan Buddhist rather than being one and after nine months we stopped attending.
Every two years or so the calling back to spiritual practice would be too strong to ignore as my mental health waxed and waned and I would dip my toes in the water once more. Meditating with vigour and conviction for months at a time and then slowly letting the habit slide again as I noticed very little real change in my lived experience.
If I was honest with myself, back then, alcohol did more to calm the storm than meditation.
I now realise that the type of meditation as taught ubiquitously throughout the industrialised West as “mindfulness” is mostly (but not always) about controlling unruly thoughts as a means to alleviate the symptoms of chronic stress. It’s a tool so that we might better tolerate all that is unhealthy about our current way of living. It is mostly taught as a neck-up process of mind-training that is very prone to be tangled up with our conditioning around achievement, comparison, success and failure and has almost nothing to do with the deeper fundamental point of contemplative practice, to recognise and abide as our true Self. A Self that is both internally and externally whole and connected with all Life.
As meditation teacher and author of Beyond Mindfulness (p39), Stephen Bodian, points out:
“At a certain point, however, the practice of mindfulness, as a particular state of mind that you need to keep making an effort to maintain, can begin to seem laborious and mechanical, and you may find yourself longing for a more spontaneous, less manipulative way of being present.”
Many hours of sitting, concentrating as diligently as possible on the sensations of breath at the tips of my nostrils, being distracted and lost in thought, noticing that distraction (often disappointedly) and returning to the sensations of breath did calm me down while I meditated. I was able to sustain my focus for longer and longer periods and to be distracted for shorter and shorter periods. I got much better at it, but my life didn’t change, not really, not at the level I desperately needed it to.
I relied more and more on alcohol as my pacifier of choice and had regular struggles with depression and anxiety. I was hypersensitive to external stressors and my physical health was very up and down with bursts of frenetic energy followed by a slump into fatigue and illness followed by another flurry of energy. I resented my body for its weakness, for not being strong enough to keep up with the pace I felt was necessary. And when my body slowed me down, that then allowed the doubts and the darkness back into my mind. “I wasn’t up to this”, “I would never amount to anything”, “I had no staying power” “I was weak”…I felt ashamed of myself.
I was still doing stuff despite this self-judgement. Starting and running successful projects, engaging in ecologically motivated, permacultural change in my own life and with organisations, but it was costing me huge amounts of energy. I was running on willpower and the drive to make change happen through force, all the while running lower and lower on internal reserves.
Without the numbing mask of alcohol, I started to really notice my state of body-mind, and it wasn’t pretty.
Seven years ago I finally owned up to my alcohol addiction. I realised that since my mid-teens I had relied on alcohol to cope with life and that it had a power over me that I could no longer ignore. I had been lying to myself and others about the influence it had over me and I realised that nothing good in my life had ever come from it. And so I quit, cold-turkey and never drank again.
It was really hard for the first 6 months. Constant craving, feeling isolated from my previous social circles as I was terrified to go near a bar in case I succumbed. And, living in Spain at the time, the bar was the focal point of all village life. I also felt under the weight of suspicion and outright disapproval from friends. People kept asking things like, “you’ll still have the odd glass of wine won’t you?” One friend told me to my face that they “didn’t trust people who didn’t drink”. It turns out that unlike giving up smoking, which most people applaud you for, giving up alcohol touches a sensitive nerve in others. A place perhaps, they don’t want to look.
It took about two years to begin to learn who I was sober and for me to acclimate to being a comfortable non-drinker. And eventually, alcohol faded from my thoughts and my life almost completely. I firmly believe that you do not need to be always “in recovery” as I now feel fully recovered from my previous pernicious addiction.
Throughout that time I continued to periodically meditate, concentrating on my breath, being distracted, returning to my breath again.
There was a clear and definite positive life bounce after quitting drinking. Sober, my moods stabilised, my relationships improved, I lost weight and felt like I had achieved something monumentally important.
But I was still chronically stressed, frequently fatigued and ill and still totally disconnected from my body and my Self (although I didn’t know it at the time). What was interesting though was how much I noticed my stress now that it wasn’t numbed by alcohol. I couldn’t escape the internal turbulence so easily anymore and as I became more and more face to face with it, I realised how dysregulated and disconnected I was. I wasn’t depressed anymore but I was far from happy.
“We no longer sense what is happening in our bodies and cannot therefore act in self-preserving ways. The physiology of stress eats away at our bodies not because it has outlived its usefulness but because we may no longer have the competence to recognize its signals.”
When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress — Gabor Maté, (p.78)
Everything finally came to a head as we moved from our small olive and almond farm in Spain back to Johanna’s native Finland where we faced the monumental task of starting to homestead from scratch again, building a new life and relationships (and for me at least, all in an alien culture and language). After an initial 18-month burst of willpower and forced energy, building gardens, cutting hay by hand, setting up orchards, coppice and animal grazing systems, as well as finding paid work, settling kids into school and friendship circles and renovating our little wooden house, I just collapsed. My body just stopped functioning.
I had such profound body weakness that I struggled to lift a cup of tea to my mouth. Walking to the post box left my legs trembling with fatigue and the internal tremor in my body was a strongly persistent and frightening presence. I was very scared that something life-threatening was going on. I went to the doctor and had tons of tests, all of which, apart from raised liver enzymes, returned within normal-ish parameters. I didn’t have cancer or heart disease which was a relief, but I was severely unwell and the hospital couldn’t tell me why.
Again, I now know how common these chronic fatigue symptoms can be and how difficult to diagnose and treat conventionally they can be, but at the time I was confused and scared.
From mindfulness to bodyfulness.
Over several months, as the “normal” test results kept coming through in the post but my health remained as poor, I knew that the answer lay in something more fundamental and I knew that the answers were going to come from re-establishing relations with my body. For decades my body and I had engaged in a kind of cold war of resentment and recrimination and it felt like there was an internal Berlin Wall separating “me” from “my body”. I had the very visceral sense that I needed my own version of 1989; the wall needed to come crashing down and reintegration and reconnection needed to be allowed to begin.
That started a deep exploration into embodiment, taking me through a dizzying array of learning and practice including: Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory of autonomic nervous system regulation and dysregulation, Peter Levine’s work on embodied trauma and the therapeutic benefits of Somatic Experiencing, paleolithic diets and the gut-brain relationship, breathwork via Wim Hof, Soma, and Stan Grof’s Holotropic Breathing, Trauma Release Exercises, Self-Authoring, Judith Blackstone’s Realization Process, transpersonal psychology, self-enquiry, direct approach non-dual meditation and the Bio-Emotive framework to name just some of the many approaches I learned about, practised and synthesised into my own approach and the coaching we now offer at Earthbound.
But to cut a long list of approaches short, the most crucial learning I gleaned and have put into daily practice in my life, and which has helped me heal and grow so profoundly is pretty simple:
For deep transformation to occur we need to shift down from our heads, into our bodies and through our bodies into the very centre of Life itself. It’s a shift into bodyfulness, one of coming fully back online into a lived, felt experience of vibrant enlivenment.
As Will Meecham — meditation and yoga teacher and founder of Mindful Biology, puts it:
“We enliven ourselves and our world when we recognize that Life flows through all experience. We are healed when we connect with it.”
Subtle Energy Meditation.
Perhaps the most catalytic of all the practices I discovered in my process of healing is the life work of long term meditators and teachers, Kevin Schoeninger and Stephen Altair, Subtle Energy Meditation (SEM). Its lineage includes Dzogchen, Qigong, Centering Prayer, T’ai Chi and Kriya Yoga and has been developed into a beautiful and powerful synthesis. As they state:
“The purpose of Subtle Energy Meditation is to help you shift your baseline consciousness from states of anxiety, stress, and self-focus to a deeply peaceful Compassionate Spacious Awareness using the Subtle Energy System as a means. Through practice, it’s possible for Compassionate Spacious Awareness to become a permanent trait, a stable background. This is a whole different space to live from — and one that most people are not even aware of as a possibility. It’s our goal to guide you here and support you to live from this expanded Awareness.”
For “subtle energy system” you could read, the “flow of life force within and beyond your body which animates all life”. It sounds esoteric but it’s a normal part of being human that we simply don’t pay attention to anymore.
The process of noticing here is key. Developing a chronically under-developed sense of interoception, of felt-sensing inside the body is vital. It’s the process of becoming more and more intimate with your actual experience and less and less lost in the story of your strategic mind and its agenda of constant vigilance, defence and control. And crucially SEM is a whole-body (and beyond) process. Learning to recognise and value your heart-mind and gut-mind, the visceral physicality of your emotional life, the arising and passing of thought, feeling and sensation and the underlying still, spacious, silent awareness that is the backdrop to all your experiences. It is revelatory and truly transformational.
Suddenly you realise what a very limited “bandwidth”, (as transformational leadership coach, Nicholas Janni, describes it) you used to operate from when only identified as the small problem solver behind your eyes.
For me the shift was remarkable. I noticed, pulsing, tingling, streaming aliveness in my body and this was fascinating. So much more captivating than my years of dry, mechanical breath focus. The mystery and delight of being alive in the world came back to me. And I started to notice that when I really allowed myself to relax, my sense of “I” expanded to include my thoughts, feelings and sensations but to transcend them, to include my body — for which I suddenly felt deep compassion — but to transcend that too. I began to recognise an aspect of “I” that was this deep presence, pervading my body but merged with the space and world beyond it. I realised that I was not a separate, atomised being but part of a continuum, an ever-unfolding process called Life and that realisation brought enormous existential relief.
Tuning in and Letting Go.
I have learned that by really tuning in deeply to your fullest Self, everything changes, but that to allow yourself to really attune to Self, there needs to be a profound process of relaxation, of letting go.
This starts at a material body-mind level. Learning to consciously relax the macro and micro tensions in our system takes practice, patience and time. There is a constant contraction back to the ‘small-self’ behind our eyes as we are so conditioned to be there. A very gentle process of trust building needs to be established. Finding safe groundedness by resting as presence deep in your body. This feels disorienting at first, and while appealing, it’s difficult to trust. It feels ephemeral and unfamiliar. But just like in any meaningful relationship, trust is built through consistency, and the more you make contact with yourself as presence the more you trust that this is “enough”. That we can just Be without having to Do. And that, in turn, allows for more and more deep relaxation. We can loosen the tight grip we erroneously think keeps us safe. We learn to trust that we are held by Life and that means we can let go of our false belief that we need to be in control, or that we can be in control really.
As we relax on ever more fundamental levels we notice constrictions and knots in our body-mind system. Old trauma or undigested emotion frozen and trapped in our system, stuck in a kind of endless tape-loop, playing out as repeating patterns of unhelpful thoughts, feelings or behaviours. Learning to rest as this spacious loving awareness, we can allow the natural thawing process to occur. We can trust the wisdom of our deep Self, knowing that healing will occur if we support the conditions for healing. Our constrictions start to dissolve, to melt and flow again.
I learned, but much more importantly, experienced directly as a felt-sense, that I could let go of fixing and doing and effort and willpower and force. All the things that were making me sick for all those years. I could simply rest back and let my true nature take over the process. I could stop seeking and know that I was fundamentally whole.
As another of our most important teachers, depth psychologist and meditation teacher, John Prendergast puts it in his book, The Deep Heart (p52):
“Realizing that we are essentially whole is a huge relief from the self-improvement project. Recognizing that we are fundamentally well allows us to relax. An inner struggle winds down as we stop trying to manipulate ourselves and others. ”
And it worked.
Returning home to Self, and helping others do the same.
Over time, and with gentle but consistent practice, the internal storm abated and my nervous system has become more and more regulated. The deep fatigue passed and I discovered again how joyful it was to be alive. This is not a one-off, finite process however, this is a lifelong practice and for modern humanity as a whole, a generations long practice. But my practice no longer is driven by willpower through gritted teeth, but by willingness as my lived experience of being me has so dramatically improved. It feels really, really good to be alive!
My body still experiences illness and fatigue occasionally (but much less so), but now when it does, I can be kind to myself, care for myself in a way that seemed impossible before, knowing that by doing so I am creating further conditions for healing.
Also by resting in presence, in my body, I can really “be here and be available” for others as Nicholas Janni describes it. This has improved the quality of my relationships in all aspects of my life and is such an important ability in this culture of absence and distraction.
Subtle Energy Meditation has been so helpful in our own lives that Johanna and I trained to teach it to others. Learning how important the process work around conditioning, trauma and emotional blockages is to our ability to relax into our true nature and really become enlivened, I have also trained as a transpersonal psychology coach. We embed this teaching and coaching work in our deep ecological worldview and daily homestead life and we know this to be a very powerful and useful combination so needed in the midst of all the crises we are facing as a world.
If you resonate with my experience and would like to explore this process for yourself then please explore the coaching and teaching work we are facilitating through www.earthbound.fi.